When MoFo general counsel Doug Hendricks and associate Melissa Perez received the call in mid–December to assist a Honduran border detainee named Yeimi, who had been separated from her two daughters for two months, they were eager to help. On February 1, 2019, Yeimi was released from immigration custody and reunited with her girls on February 8, 2019, after four months apart and just one day after her daughter’s fifth birthday. The family is now staying together in El Paso while she awaits the adjudication of her immigration application.
The announcement was made on Monday, February 11, during a press conference held at Annunciation House, an El Paso–based nonprofit focused on sheltering immigrants released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Just as President Trump was touching down in El Paso for his border wall rally, the press conference on Truthful Border Narratives was delivering a clear message that refugees are not criminals, shedding light on why immigrants like Yeimi are risking their lives to cross the border.
During the conference, Yeimi fought back tears avowing, “If I had to do it all over again I’d do it again because it was for the wellbeing of my daughters. It’s my responsibility to fight for my daughters. I’m going to fight for my daughters no matter what happens.”
Yeimi had been living in the United States with her daughters before she was deported back to Honduras — one of the most crime–ridden countries in the world — where she and her daughters faced extreme levels of violence. When she decided to return with her daughters, she was apprehended by ICE Border Patrol agents near El Paso, Texas in mid–October 2018. Her daughters were just three and four years old at the time.
Once she was placed in ICE detention, Yeimi had to wait an entire month before speaking to her daughters, who were placed in the foster care system, and then was only allowed to see them for an hour a week. “It is emotionally challenging to work with a client who has been separated from her children,” says Melissa. “Not only do you have to ask them to relive the worst moments of their life, but you have to ask them to rehash these moments over and over. [Yeimi] fought through tears and trauma to share her story but remained strong for her daughters.”
Because of her prior deportation, Yeimi cannot seek asylum here. Rather, she is applying for withholding of removal under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which will protect her from being deported if she can prove there is more than a 50% chance that she will experience persecution in her home country. Unlike full asylum, a withholding of removal order does not open a path to U.S. citizenship. Nonetheless, it would allow Yeimi to raise her U.S. citizen children here.
After failing to convince ICE to release Yeimi from detention on humanitarian grounds, the team brought a writ of habeas corpus in the Western District of Texas. That proceeding eventually led to Yeimi’s release, which occurred on the day the government had been ordered to respond to the habeas petition, ICE apparently having decided that it was easier to release her than to attempt to justify her further detention to Judge Guaderrama.
But Yeimi’s release from detention was only one of the steps required to reunite her with her children. The children had been taken into the Texas foster care system, and an order from a state judge was required to release them to their mother. “Due to the fact that Yeimi’s daughters were in the foster care system under the state’s authority and that she was in federal custody, it really required a team effort between us [MoFo] and the local team on the ground in El Paso,” notes Doug.
The team that worked together to help Yeimi win release from the detention center and reunite her with her daughters included Layne Hilton of Kanner & Whiteley, Taylor Levy of Annunciation House, and solo practitioners Amy Maldonado and Eduardo Beckett.
Melissa, who grew up in a mixed–status family noted, “Immigrant rights issues have always been personal for me. Fortunately, this is an issue MoFo also cares about, which meant that the firm was happy to leverage its resources and do everything within its power to help reunite our client with her children.”
Ever since MoFo chair Larren Nashelsky signed a pledge to join 34 other law firms in reunifying migrant families and ensuring representation for asylum seekers, the firm has devoted impressive resources to this mission. In addition to helping families suffering separations at the border, MoFo lawyers are fighting to combat horrific conditions at detention centers, counseling detainees in preparation for their credible fear interviews, representing children seeking release from detention, and representing individuals seeking asylum. As the immigration enforcement crisis continues, MoFo attorneys are writing a new chapter in the ongoing story of our pro bono assistance to immigrants.
Learn more about MoFo’s pro bono commitments in the latest edition of MoProBono.